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Washington State’s clean energy roadmap leads with equity and public input

With the 2021 State Energy Strategy, Washington has demonstrated a deep commitment to meaningful community engagement and centering equity concerns.

By Samantha Donalds, Clean Energy States Alliance

The State of Washington’s 2021 State Energy Strategy (SES) provides a roadmap for Washington to meet its critical and ambitious energy and climate goals: transitioning to 100% clean electricity by 2045 and reducing greenhouse gas emissions in accordance with climate science.

The SES was notable for the State Energy Office’s efforts to combine extensive stakeholder and technical input with detailed modeling, and to identify actions in every major sector of the state’s economy. The SES puts equity and climate justice at the fore because climate change inflicts the greatest harm on overburdened communities and low-income households. It envisions an energy transition that breaks from historical patterns and narratives, reflecting legislative direction that embeds equity in the state’s energy policy.

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Developing a strategy to meet state goals

The Washington State Legislature authorized the 2021 State Energy Strategy in 2019. The State Energy Office was charged with developing an updated comprehensive energy strategy to achieve clean electricity and emissions reduction limits, while also ensuring reasonable energy prices and sufficient supplies to support the economy. The legislation created a 27-member advisory committee representing a broad set of governmental, Tribal, environmental, consumer, and industry interests. In a notable commitment to the input of diverse stakeholders, the State Energy Office contracted for professional facilitation of the advisory committee meetings. The State Energy Office convened the first advisory committee meeting in January 2020 and submitted the final strategy to the Legislature in December 2020. The office held multiple meetings to solicit feedback from the public.

Staff from the State Energy Office wrote the final energy strategy, with policy experts responsible for individual chapters on equity, energy modeling, electricity, buildings, transportation, and industry. The office contracted for technical and analytical support from multiple experts in energy, building science, equity, economic analysis, industrial processes, and transportation.

The 2021 SES bases its policy direction on an economy-wide analytical framework that allows stakeholders and decision-makers to see the impact of choices in one sector or time period, on other sectors and time periods. By using this rigorous, economy-wide model, the strategy steers away from rigid proportionate reduction scenarios by identifying those end-uses that are ready for immediate action, and those where improvement opportunities lie at the point of equipment turnover. The energy model also identifies end-uses that are difficult to decarbonize with existing technologies and finds reductions in other sectors to compensate. Finally, the energy model uses comprehensive data on supply-side and demand-side technologies and costs to evaluate alternative reduction pathways and identify cost-minimizing solutions to achieve the required emissions reductions.

The strategy is not determined solely by model results. Instead, it uses these results as the starting point for technical, policy, and environmental justice analysis. The comprehensive model helps focus discussions and sharpen decisions, illuminating points that could be missed easily in sector-specific plans or interest-based stakeholder discussions. The development of the SES was also influenced by input from hundreds of stakeholders.

Focus on community input, equity, and environmental justice

Washington’s 2021 State Energy Strategy emphasizes that the clean energy transition must benefit urban and rural communities, overburdened and low-income households, and Indigenous communities throughout the state. It identifies public sector investment and planning, data analysis, and outreach as crucial steps for an equitable and inclusive transition. It also recognizes that decarbonization presents many opportunities to address inequities through enhancing resilience in rural Washington, growing and diversifying Washington’s economy and clean energy workforce, and improving health outcomes and quality of life.

The Environmental Justice Task Force (EJTF) that convened in 2019 was charged with developing measurable goals and policy recommendations to correct these negative impacts on overburdened communities. The Department of Commerce, along with several other state agencies, community-based organizations, and community members, drafted the EJTF final report, which provides the initial framework for the equity and environmental justice component of the strategy. The SES recognizes the multiple dimensions of environmental justice and the limitation of any single definition of equity. It identifies the need to evaluate environmental justice in multiple dimensions— procedural, distributional and structural—and offers a multistep process for building equity into clean energy policies. Although the strategy development process did not fully realize those principles, it laid the foundation for further efforts to reduce environmental and health disparities.

In 2021, Washington enacted the Healthy Environment for All (HEAL) Act, which is legislation based on several recommendations from the EJTF final report and establishes comprehensive environmental justice obligations for relevant state agencies, including Commerce. Starting in the summer of 2022, state agencies will work with a governor-appointed Environmental Justice Council. Members of the council include people from Tribes, communities overburdened by environmental harms, labor and business representatives, and an interagency policy group. Compliance requirements include developing a community engagement plan and public participation requirements, incorporating environmental justice into agency strategic plans, and increasing government-to-government consultation requirements with Tribal governments.

Program impact

The SES has served as the touchstone and guiding document for Washington policy makers. During the 2021 legislative session, the Washington Legislature passed significant legislation reflecting recommendations from the 2021 strategy. These include the following:

  • An economy-wide cap-and-invest program with significant climate protections for overburdened communities
  • A clean fuel standard to reduce transportation emissions
  • Comprehensive environmental justice and energy equity requirements for state agencies
  • Authorization of multi-year rate plans and financial assistance for organizations that represent broad customer interests in regulatory proceedings
  • A planning directive for a zero-emissions transportation future

In addition to these changes in regulatory and climate policy, the Legislature in 2021 allocated nearly $60 million to the Energy Office’s Clean Energy Fund, with the directive to use the 2021 SES to guide the design of clean energy programs— with a particular focus on equity and environmental justice. It also included funding that will support grid modernization, strategic research and development of emerging clean energy technologies, innovative approaches to the electrification of transportation systems, building electrification, maritime electrification, bioenergy projects, and further development of a rural clean energy strategy. The Legislature provided an additional $1,175,000 to support the implementation of the strategy as it relates to emissions from energy use in new and existing buildings.

The strategy’s influence on adopted legislation and clean energy investments will improve the lives of Washingtonians in the coming decades and create a more equitable, inclusive, and resilient clean energy future for all residents.

A model for other states

Many other states and jurisdictions are considering and adopting energy transformation policies focused on 100 percent clean electricity supplies and science-based emissions reduction limits. Understanding the technical and economic requirements to meet those goals using robust models and analysis is critical to informing long-term planning. However, the technical analysis of energy transformation strategies must be grounded in the lived experiences of communities most at risk of environmental and economic harm. Washington modeled an impressive commitment to this goal that is not only replicable but also adaptable.

In 2022, the Washington Department of Commerce—State Energy Office was awarded a State Leadership in Clean Energy Award for the 2021 State Energy Strategy by the Clean Energy States Alliance (CESA). According to an independent panel of judges, “With the 2021 State Energy Strategy, Washington has demonstrated a deep commitment to meaningful community engagement and centering equity concerns. The impacts from this effort were impressive; they effectively used modeling tools and community engagement at the start of the process to influence a variety of policy decisions.” For a detailed case study on Washington’s 2021 State Energy Strategy, and the five other winners of the 2022 State Leadership in Clean Energy Awards, see a new report released by CESA in September 2022.  Representatives from the Energy Office will discuss the 2021 State Energy Strategy in a CESA webinar on November 9 – learn more.

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